England’s Dreaming #14: Scallywag – Uk’s Great, Forgotten Satirical Mag
Amongst the mess of litigation and accusation that has surrounded the UK’s grubby history of high level child abuse, police cover-ups and wide spread government corruption (allegedly – Ed), it’s remarkable that a lot of information supposedly being ‘uncovered for the first time’ has in fact been available for some 25 years. It's been generally forgotten now but for a few years in the early 90s an anarchic and combative satirical magazine called Scallywag published article after article that exposed the liars, abusers and thieves running amok in the corridors of power. They defamed politicians and fingered bent coppers. They gave column space to radical comedians and broke stories of paedophile rings. A weird mix of reactionaries and revolutionaries, Scallywag took on the establishment at every level. And lost. This is their story.
Scallywag was the project of a vaguely disreputable journalist named Simon Regan. Born in 1942, Regan had grown up in a Hampstead mansion, although the grand impression may have been somewhat undermined by the fact that his parents rented rooms out to various lodgers to cover costs. According to his Guardian obituary he grew up: “surrounded by card-carrying communists and eccentric east European intellectuals.” Perhaps it was here that he developed the contrarian mindset that wanted to pull apart the system. "If I had the chance,” he said later in life, “I would be a great repealer: censorship laws, Sunday trading, licensing, blasphemy, the Official Secrets Act – they would all be dumped. Then I'd disestablish the establishment."
To this end, Regan began to write. He was published as a poet as a teenager, but it was as a journalist that he first found wider success. He learnt his trade – and his nose for a salacious story – after landing a job at the News of the World in 1967. Regan proved popular with NotW readers, producing what the Guardian obituary calls “his "probes" into counter-cultural drugs, debauchery and Trotskyite student conspiracy.” This is actually a bit of a disingenuous description of Regan’s work. As this archived letter from Regan shows, he started off as a reporter knocking up racey revelations of the cannabis smoking hi-jinks of pop stars, but soon “found the scene so attractive myself that I begged to come off such stories.”
Rather than expose cannabis use, Regan found himself embracing it, and soon enough started smoking loads of weed. By the end of 1967 he had a fair portion of the NotW at it as well – funded by bogus expense claims.
“That year” he wrote, “I baked a large Christmas cake containing a full ounce of "golden" Lebanese grass and cut it into 16 slices to give away as Christmas presents. I gave a slice to [features editor] Mike Gabbert, telling him exactly what it was. In the New Year he called me into his office and asked me if I could cook him a full cake for himself. "I have never had such great sex," he explained. "It'll be on expenses, of course."
“Stafford Sommerfield, the editor, had vociferously and personally instigated all the drug exposures. Yet a week after I had given Gabbert the cake, he rather sheepishly asked me if I could cook another one "for Stafford". Apparently Gabbert had given a couple of slices to the editor, who had taken them home; he had got completely stoned. Now I was technically a dealer myself. I supplied about one cake a month to Gabbert and had no idea what happened to it. But the drugs exposures did dramatically cease. When Rupert Murdoch took over the NoW, the expenses dried up and Stafford was subsequently eased out.”
Simon Regan : fond of a fag.
This fondness for weed may well have encouraged Regan when he nailed his first big scoop. He managed to record Nottingham police officers quite blatantly planting drugs on Jamaicans, and then using the planted drugs to blackmail them into grassing up their associates. The resultant story came out in August 1969 as ‘Police Plot to Plant Drugs’ and led to three bent coppers getting charged with conspiring to pervert the course of justice. When the case came to court, the policeman walked free after a dubious decision from the judge to rule Regan’s tapes inadmissible.
After a few more years at News of the World, Regan quit to go freelance. He wrote a few books – biographies of Rupert Murdoch and Princess Margaret that seem to have had little impact. A bio of Prince Charles, subtitled Clown Prince was based on letters and paintings Regan had acquired that had been stolen from Buckingham Palace, and led to palace officials launching a copyright claim. More entertainingly, he launched a journal called Butterfly News, which brought his investigative skills to bear on the presumably unprepared world of butterfly collecting, getting in digs at Coca Cola, British farmers, and other butterfly collectors. Around the same time he moved down to Devon, and it was here that he started Scallywag.
The magazine was originally designed to examine local affairs – dodgy estate agents, local government, rants at the local brewery. It soon started moving in on targets that would be an abiding obsession for Regan – police corruption, free masonry and paedophilia. In 1991, after 66 or so issues, Regan decided to head back to London to launch a new edition of the magazine, drawing in his younger step-brother, Angus James to help. Between them they wanted to bring back to pioneering commitment to truth that had characterised early Private Eye, an organ they felt had long since lost its way from fear of libel. Regan didn’t give a shit about libel – and it might have been his complete lack of funds that enabled him to laugh at being sued. As this 1993 piece in the Independent states, he was an undischarged bankrupt – he had literally nothing to take. But he had plenty to report.
Whatever crimes Regan felt he was uncovering in Devon were massively amplified in London. He found himself witnessing the Tory party as it fell into a near anarchy of sleaze and corruption, and reported on it with a tone that hovered between gleeful insult and disgust. For the first two years he ran story after story without once getting sued.
The magazine, now viewable in parts over here, is a curious mix. When it’s good, it’s sharp and funny – notably, they got some great guest talent. The late, great Bill Hicks contributed and In Sickness and In Health writer Johnny Speight resurrected Alf Garntee as a columnist.
Elsewhere Scallywag shuffles between fearless investigative journalism, campaigns against hypocrisy and censorship, sputtering rants against political correctness and a rich vein of misogynist bullshit. At times it’s a bit like Jeremy Clarkson editing a radicalised Private Eye and, for me, mithering bleeding heart liberal that I am, it’s often hard not to think that the bunch of men writing the magazine are just being dickheads. They’re very much a product of the establishment they profess to want to disestablish. There is a prolonged obsession with closeted gay Tory politicians – the magazine claims that this is in response to the parties constant and hypocritical harking back to Victorian family values, rather than any problem they with homosexuality, but the language that they use is a nudge-nudge wink-wink inneundo of ‘tradesman’s entrances’ and ‘brown bonding’ that’s lame, homophobic and embarrassing.
However, in other places their detailed, explicit stories about murderous orgies at Dolphin Square, the liberal use and abuse of rent boys by senior politicians and the secretive cliques of power and abuse controlling everything from the police to the media are starting to look pretty fucking compelling. When Theresa May is stating that abuse runs through British society like ‘a stick of Blackpool rock’, you have to wonder just how much of the content published by Scallywag was accurate. They certainly weren’t sued. At least, they weren’t sued until 1993 when they claimed then Prime Minister John Major was having an affair. Major took them to court and took their publishers to court. He won the case and the magazine was screwed. About a year later it came out that Major was indeed having an affair but Scallywag had got the name of the mistress wrong. The woman they reported to be rumoured to be Major’s lover, a Downing Street caterer called Claire Latimer, told the BBC that she felt she had been used as a conscious decoy by Major and “that she believed he had allowed the rumours about his affair with her to circulate unchecked to cover his real affair with Mrs Currie, which could have destroyed his chances of becoming Prime Minister.”
So Scallywag weren’t beyond getting things wrong, although it turns out that when they did get something wrong it was very likely as the result of a deliberate sting. Still, this misnaming needs to be borne in mind when examining their exposé of the late Lord McAlpine. Maybe they, like Newsnight in 2012, had the wrong man when they accused him of being central to a vicious ring of child abusers. Interestingly after McAlpine fired out writs to anyone who even tweeted his name in relation to the abuse allegations that re-surfaced in 2012 he didn’t actually initiate any court proceedings. Everything was done with quick out of court settlements, followed by the Lord’s death a year later.
The fall-out from the Major case was a financial blow for Scallywag, but they soldiered on. At one point they wrote about a former photographer from News of the World who had confessed to making up high profile stories about evil benefit scroungers and freeloading immigrants, describing them as ‘pure fiction’ – not that fabricated scare-mongering about immigrants and benefit claimants would ever feature in a Murdoch publication these days…
In darker moments they also published a number of other stories outing abuse scandals with testimony from alleged victims of Lord McAlpine and a long piece accusing then Wrexham police superintendent Gordon Anglesea of being a vicious rapist – at the time the Crown Prosecution chose not to investigate Anglesea and Scallywag asserted that this was down to Masonic connections. It's now looking increasingly like they were onto something – Anglesea is currently on bail over allegations he assaulted seven children between 1975 and 1983. If he's found guilty then we need to engage with the fact that a magazine was accusing him – overtly – of these same crimes 20 years ago and the establishment chose to turn a blind eye.
Soon, however, for Scallywag the game was up. A story Angus James wrote about Tory MP Julian Lewis digging dirt on a pre-election Tony Blair, that also insinuated Lewis was gay, led to Lewis – realising he would get nish out of the perennially broke Regan and James – suing the magazines printer, six distributors and two retailers. He won the case for libel and had the offices of Scallywag locked up. Regan decided to batter on and he and James managed to publish 2 more print issues, scraping together funds and using a rotating selection of North London pubs as an office. In this editorial Regan describes life after the Julian Lewis case. It paints a picture of the magazine besieged, under constant surveillance from known and unknown forces. The sense of dread is palpable, as is Regan's defiance:
“Since, within a 48-hour period the locks were changed on our office door, our bank accounts were closed, £16,000 owed to us by distributors was frozen, and at least nine writs were issued against the trade and printers dealing with Scallywag magazine, our office has become by definition, a moveable feast. More than two years of research files, contact books, personal papers and legal documents must now be recovered through the courts.
"Although by now, of course, it might be far too late. One of our earlier supporters, a middle-aged woman living in Hampstead received a most peculiar call from Dr. Julian Lewis, the somewhat notorious deputy head of research at the Conservative Central Office who asked her questions relating to "some information which has fallen into our hands." It was a private letter from her to me, actually using code names (for fun she was called Eagle and I Buzzard), and he made it quite clear it was one of many. The only copy of this letter, as far as we know, was kept in a file marked Eagle in my own locked desk.
"So why should Lewis take such an avid and overt interest in us – considered by the Tories to be such a two-bit magazine that it was beneath them to even notice us? In the various North London pubs where we try and meet up each day, and which presently act as our offices, the theories have abounded.
"We have in fact hit the Tories where it has been hurting, making the most serious allegations about Portillo and Lilley, even worse ones about Lord McAlpine; month by month for the past year we have made daring assaults on their credibility. Someone had to come for us sometime. The excuse for a showdown was two-fold. Firstly Smith Square found out we were about to publish a penetrating and well- researched account of Tory Party funding, which during the sleaze controversy could only be highly damaging. Second, we published in the last two editions articles alleging Lewis had prepared dossiers on pretty well every member of the Shadow Cabinet which purported to show them in a bad light. Especially Prescott and Blair.
"Lewis had boasted to the Sunday Times, where he enjoys celebrity status, that his department had leaked the stories about Socialists sending their children to fee-paying schools, and had largely organised the "marketing" of former Soviet agent Gorievski's so-called allegations about Michael Foot and others. So far pretty lean stuff, and most highly discredited. But, promised Lewis, licking his lips, there's a lot more where that came from. He would begin to release it towards the run-up to the next election.
"The ST, like most of the traditional right-wing press, was very well acquainted with Lewis and his tactics, but as he was a "leaker supreme" they tended not to mention it. In his quaint and devious way, he was far too valuable.
"On our standards the story on Lewis waging a "dirty tricks campaign against the socialists" was tame stuff indeed, although it did refer to some of his very dirty tricks during the time he was concentrating on demolishing the CND, and also said some unkind things about his sex life. But by all accounts, it sent Lewis into a furious rage. He then decided to turn the entire Central Office spotlight onto us, using all their researchers, headed notepaper to add credence to his threats, telephones, and considerable manpower to dig out anything he could on us. So far he has done this very successfully indeed.
"The upper hierarchy in Westminster were delighted with this turnout. They had been trying to find ways to get rid of Lewis every since John Major came to power. He had been privately financed by half a dozen rich ultra-right-wing organisations, such as Norris McWhirter's British Freedom Association, and he had been nuisance enough before he had got to Smith Square. Then, at the height of Thatcher's power (he was always a Thatcher Darling) he came to the notice of the Heritage Foundation In Washington. With a budget of $19 million and a staff of 160 this "prestigious" organisation handed out significant funds to any two-bit organisation which believed in "individual freedom and a strong national defence." On several visits to Washington to lobby directly against CND, Lewis had caught their eye in a big way.
"During Maggie's reign they poured £4 million into Conservative Party coffers. But one of the conditions was that Lewis was included in the deal. He remained virtually unsackable, unless he could be discredited.
"If we were able to discredit him, and we are now very sure we can, they get rid of us and him in one fell swoop. They have singularly distanced themselves from his recent activities, pointing out at high level that Lewis is doing this "on his own."
"His campaign, however, has been relentless but surprisingly open. He personally threatened the news vendor outside Westminster tube station (who sold at least 200 copies of Scallywags to Westminster habitués). He has been on the telephone night and day announcing himself before threatening and being menacing.
"And it has so far succeeded. He has managed to have our assets frozen; we cannot get printed and even if we could, no one will distribute us or wholesale us, and even if they did, no one would sell us. We left our offices with one lap-top, one desk top and a mobile 'phone. Every call on the mobile has been carefully logged and very often people we have called, or who have called us get a call soon after from him personally warning them that any association with us at this time would be 'dangerous'. The only way in which he can possibly blanket our mobile is with the help of an outside agency, and for the first time we are beginning to get paranoiac. We only have to go to a pub once to meet up, and even while we are there the pub gets a call asking for one of us, and when we answer, the line hangs up. Just every day harassing, but it can begin to get on your nerves.
"The plus point is that influential people who were wavering about supporting us were so angry when they got a warning from him that they returned the call immediately offering their unequivocal support. So we no longer use "safe" 'phones but let him know everything we are up to. If we succeed, we shall print in Spain, sell the mag on the streets, go for subscribers in a big way, and investigate electronic publishing. We don't think Dr. Julian Lewis will survive this, but we think we will."
This optimistic conclusion proved just that – optimistic. Lewis succeded in bringing down the magazine. First he shut the offices and then, when Regan decided to get revenge by scuppering Lewis’s chance of securing the New Forest East constituency in the 1997 general election, he found himself on the wrong side of the law. “Lewis resorted to the arcane provisions of Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. He obtained taped evidence of Regan, who had set up his own website, making false statements on the Internet about his character and conduct and got Regan to admit at a public meeting that his aim was to reduce Lewis's votes at the election. The unsuspecting editor was trapped by a recording of his admission. After a four-day trial, he was fined £250 with £50 costs for a breach of this obscure electoral law.”
This was the end for Scallywag. James decided to continue with Spiked, a new magazine following broadly the same format.
With no backers James made contact with Asil Nadir, a fugitive business man living in Northern Cyprus. Nadir was wanted in the UK for alleged fraud committed in his running of the Polly Peck textile company and James apparently had some compromising pictures of Michael Portillo that Nadir was interested in – perhaps to use as leverage in his quest to return to the UK. Following a meeting between James and Nadir (along with Nadir’s henchman Peter Diamond) in Cyprus, James phoned his (and Regan’s) mum to tell her “the meeting with Diamond and Nadir had gone "brilliantly" and that he was in possession of a "substantial" cheque believed to be tens of thousands of pounds.” After one more meeting the next day James, along with his travelling companions Simon Stander, Alison Thompson and Shona Andrews, all of whom worked for Spiked, went out for celebratory drinks at a local casino. Here Regan takes up the story:
“At about 2am on the Saturday morning the four decided to get back to their rented villa. Stander had for some time had a shine on Shona Andrews which had remained unrequited. He demanded that Shona sat in the front seat with him, which she refused to do. Instead, to try and quieten things down Angus took the front seat. Stander drove off at breakneck speed in a screaming temper. According to the girls' evidence at the subsequent coroner's hearing, he was completely demented, swearing foully at everyone, and threaten to kill everyone including himself. He swerved the wheel from side to side causing the car, at huge speed, to career across the road and eventually it hit a curb and turned over several times.
"Stander sustained superficial injuries. The two girls were severely traumatised, but basically unhurt as people in the village pulled them from the wreck and called an ambulance.
"Angus had sustained massive head injuries, which later that day resulted in his death.”
Obviously this random death happening the day after James had secured funding for his magazine is too much for conspiracy theorists to ignore, all sorts of suggestions have been thrown up as to why James was ‘murdered’. Personally I’ve been around pissed maniacs long enough to believe it’s just as likely that Stander lost the plot drunk and caused a crash. We’ll never know for sure though because Stander did a runner pretty much immediately after arriving back in the UK and is now apparently working in Costa Rica at a place called the University of Peace.
Regan published a couple more editions of Scallywag online. Then after a short illness, he died in August 2000, aged 58.
And that was the end of that.
Except now, thanks to the joys of the internet, a number of Scallywag issues are online and free to read in all their flawed glory. I’d imagine the McAlpine issue has had more hits than printed copies exist. As scans of the magazine are spread and shared and blogged and tweeted across the world, and as the men who Scallywag accused of monstrous crimes some two decades back are starting to feel history catch up, it looks like Regan and James might just have the last laugh yet.